Incidental Learning: What Is It?

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Did you know that educators believe more than 80 percent of what children learn comes to them through their vision? If you find that surprising, think of what happens when you enter a room. At a glance, you'll typically see and understand the contents of the room, who's there, what they're doing, and if there's a window in the room, even what the weather is outside. Much of what children learn is acquired almost automatically and instantaneously—that is, incidentally—as they watch other children and adults interact with the environment and imitate their actions. Incidental learning is learning gained by observing people and activities around us, day by day.

baby sitting in a plastic tub holding a whisk,  surrounded by other kitchen items

If your baby has limited vision, he'll need extra explanations, descriptions, and repeated experiences in order to learn what other children learn simply by watching others and imitating them. It's not a matter of your having to teach your child about things 24 hours a day, seven days a week, but you will want to keep in mind that he won't learn about the things he can't touch unless you help him. Even with things your baby can touch, he may need more time to explore them and some explanation from you to help him truly understand what they are.

  • Involve your baby, even when he's very young, in things you do around the house. When it's time to heat his bottle in the microwave, take him with you, tell him what you're doing, let him feel the cold air coming out of the refrigerator, carry the bottle with you, and let him listen to the sound of the microwave. When the bottle is ready, with your hand over his hand, let him push the button to open the microwave door and touch the warm bottle. Otherwise, if you always bring his bottle to him already heated, he'll have no way of knowing how it gets that way.
  • When you want to show your baby something, try to relate it to what he knows. For example, if you have a cat at home and your child likes to pet the cat and touch its legs and ears, relate the lion at the zoo to the cat. They both have fur, four legs, and ears. But lions are a lot bigger, don't live with people as pets, and can be found in the zoo or in the wild.
  • Give your baby hands-on experiences. The more your child touches, the more he'll learn. If he loves to eat oranges, let him help pick them out at the grocery store, put them in the refrigerator when you get home, take one out when he wants a snack, and help peel it. When he drinks orange juice, explain that it's made from the orange he likes to eat. You might even have him help you squeeze your own juice so he can really understand where the juice comes from.
  • When you show your baby an object, use the techniques called hand-under-hand or hand-over-hand. In hand-under-hand, your child's hands are placed on top of yours, and he can feel your movements. In hand-over-hand, your hands are placed over his to guide him. If your child is exploring something unfamiliar, hand-under-hand may work better. It can be scary for your child to reach out and touch something when he can't see what that something is and doesn't know anything about it.
  • Look for places to take your child that have things for him to touch. Petting zoos, science museums, and botanical gardens are often child-friendly and open to touching. If you do go to a place where touching isn't part of the program, don't be afraid to ask if your child may touch. If you have other children, make sure they too get a chance:
    Venetia, whose daughter Maureen has retinopathy of prematurity (ROP), recalls, "When Maureen was little we went to Sea World, and afterward, I asked the trainer if she could touch Shamu, the killer whale. The trainer was great. He let her feel Shamu from top to bottom. I was thrilled at how much time he spent with my daughter. When he brought Maureen back to us, she was beaming. As we walked away, my son said, 'I would have liked to touch Shamu, too.' That really hurt! How could I not have realized he would have been thrilled to share that experience? At times I need to remind myself not to focus so fully on Maureen's blindness."

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